A climate scientist becomes a denialist arguing vaccine pseudoscience

The human mind is amazing in its ability to compartmentalize. Many are the times when I’ve come across people who seem reasonable in every other way but who cling tightly to one form of pseudoscience or another. On the other hand, as I’ve noticed time and time again, people whose minds have a proclivity for pseudoscience tend not to limit themselves to just one form of pseudoscience. Indeed, my surgical and skeptical bud Mark Hoofnagle coined a term for this latter phenomenon, namely “crank magnetism.” It’s basically a pithy term to describe how people who are into one form of pseudoscience or crankery are often into other forms. Think Alex Jones. Think Mike Adams. Think the many antivaccine activists that I’ve discussed over the years. The list goes on.

Such were the thoughts going through my mind as I encountered this remarkable bit of compartmentalization from a climate scientist named Cynthia Nevison, Ph.D. posted on that website of the antivaccine group SafeMinds and entitled This Climate Change Researcher Weighs in on the Use of “Science” to Ridicule Parents who Question Vaccines. It’s a near prefect example of someone who is correct about one area of science but has a major blind spot regarding other science, particularly vaccines. We’ve met Nevison before spreading antivaccine misinformation, and now she’s back to do it again. It’s not surprising, given that she is a board member of SafeMinds. Unfortunately (for her), her arguments have not improved since the last time I encountered her. If anything, they’re worse:

In 1988 Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote a book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which describes how the media tend to present information from government sources as unquestioned truth while marginalizing dissenting opinions and effectively controlling the terms of the debate.

Herman and Chomsky’s astute observations are as applicable today as they were 27 years ago. The media have painted a largely black and white picture in which sensible, science-minded parents give their children the recommended 37 vaccine doses by age 18 months while irrational and uneducated parents balk at this regime.

In the majority of mainstream articles in newspapers, magazines, and on-line sites, one is either for vaccines or against them. The possibility of a middle ground is not acknowledged.

Here we go again: The fallacy of the golden mean, also known as the argument to moderation. It’s a fallacy because it assumes that the best solution to a disagreement, that the best answer, must lie somewhere between the two positions. That might be a reasonable viewpoint to take when the arguments are political, but when the arguments are scientific or medical, quite often that is not the case. In fact, quite often, the answer is not somewhere between the extremes. It is the “extreme” supported by science. Surely Nevison must realize that based on her role as a climate scientist. Climate science has been under near-constant attack by anthropogenic global climate change denialists for a long time now, just as vaccines have been under attack by antivaccinationists since even before Andrew Wakefield first published his dubious case series in The Lancet linking the MMR vaccine to autistic bowel complaints, a case series that in the popular press was promoted, again, thanks to Andrew Wakefield, as evidence that the MMR vaccine caused autism. That paper was retracted due to Wakefield’s scientific fraud, but the myth remains.

Certainly, Nevison does her best to feed the myth. her post is a collection of long-debunked (and easily debunked) antivaccine tropes so brain dead that she ought to be ashamed of herself. If, for instance, some FOX News pundit or some anthropogenic global climate change denialist spouted tropes this bad about climate science, Nevison would likely wax indignant, wroth even, and attack the denialists making the pseudoscientific arguments against climate change.

So let’s take a look at her claims. They are pretty much the usual combination of non sequiturs, confusing correlation with causation, and bad science. For example, here’s the first non sequitur:

1) The most pressing health problem facing American children today is not measles, but rather the rise in chronic immune system and neurological disorders. Asthma currently affects 9.3% of American children, 25-30% have allergies, more than 10% have ADHD, and over 2% of boys have autism.

American parents should not be mocked for wanting to protect their children from developing these chronic, sometimes debilitating, and often lifelong health conditions. Parents’ concerns for their children’s health and safety is grounded in data, not hype.

Of course, American parents are not being “mocked” for wanting to protect their children from these chronic conditions. Here’s the problem. Nevison’s underlying assumption is that vaccines are responsible for the prevalence of these conditions and that therefore being antivaccine is the same thing as protecting children from these conditions. It is not. We know from numerous studies that vaccines do not cause any of these conditions, particularly autism, a question that has been studied over and over and over not because there is compelling scientific question but because antivaccine activists like Nevison have been so persistent in promoting vaccine pseudoscience. Any “mockery” directed at antivaccinationists is in response to their well-documented promotion of ideas that, from a scientific standpoint, are so utterly ridiculous and devoid of supporting evidence that mockery is the most appropriate response.

Rather like the ideas being regurgitated by Nevison in this article.

Speaking of ideas worthy of ridicule, remember how Bill Maher tried to argue that “questioning” vaccines is not the same thing as questioning climate science. Remember how wrong he was? Nevison makes essentially the same bad argument, which is, as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman might put it, equally worthless.

See what I mean:

2) It is inappropriate to conflate climate change denial and concerns over vaccine safety as comparable examples of the rejection of science. (The fact that resistance to genetically modified foods is increasingly being cited as another example of the rejection of science raises questions about who is really behind this type of argument, but that is a discussion for another day.)

Why are so many parents questioning the official information coming from the mainstream media about autism and its potential link to vaccines? Are their fears based on facts or on emotion?

No, it is entirely appropriate to conflate climate change denial and antivaccine talking points (such as the nonsense that Nevison lays down, as being equally worthless antiscience nonsense. Ditto rejection of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In fact, if you doubt me, you might want to check out what that paragon of crank magnetism, Mike Adams, has written about this, for example, in an article entitled Same delusional people who say vaccines are safe also insist GMOs, glyphosate, aspartame, mercury and radiation are safe, too. The whole idea behind the post, in typical Mike Adams hyper-caffeinated prose, is that not only are skeptics and scientists who point out that science doesn’t support the fear mongering against vaccines and GMO “delusional” but that they are dangerous. Amusingly, Adams is also an anthropogenic global climate change denialist, as evidenced by multiple articles on his site (e.g. Global warming data FAKED by government to fit climate change fictions and Global warming debunked: NASA report verifies carbon dioxide actually cools atmosphere).

Nevison bases her argument on five “facts”:

  1. Autism is caused by improper brain synapse formation
  2. Empirical data shows autism is on the rise
  3. Autism is caused by environmental triggers but the government continues to spend most of its money searching for the elusive “autism gene”
  4. The increase in the number of childhood vaccines correlates with the increase in autism
  5. Asking whether our packed vaccine schedule might be a trigger for autism is a scientifically plausible question that is not equivalent to climate change denial:

“Fact #1” is possibly true. “Fact #2” is actually arguable. Yes, the apparent prevalence of autism is on the rise, but, as has been explained many times, both by myself and others, it’s not at all clear if the “true” prevalence of autism has increased. Rather, a combination of factors, including broadening of the diagnostic criteria back in the mid 1990s, along with increased awareness and screening, have contributed to the apparent increase in autism prevalence through diagnostic substitution and other factors. If there has been a real increase in autism prevalence, it is almost certainly very small, contrary to cries of “autism epidemic” or “autism tsunami” from antivaccinationists like, yes, the board of directors at SafeMinds, including Nevison.

As for autism environmental “triggers,” Nevison’s argument references a SafeMinds article (hardly a reliable source), which references two studies, a recent Swiss study that concluded that autism exhibits slightly more than 50% heritability of autism and autism spectrum disorders and a Stanford study that estimated autism/ASD heritability to be around 38%. Of course, note the assumption Nevison makes. If there is an environmental component to autism and ASDs that’s important, it must be the vaccines. Indeed she makes it explicit:

Further, to the extent that the NIH admits that autism is rising, it blames illogical things like air pollution (despite the fact that U.S. air quality has improved over the past few decades). Are genetics and air pollution appropriate scientific research priorities for a condition that took off sharply in the late 1980s?

In that case, as I so often like to point out, it would be equally “logical” to examine organic food. Seriously, do I have to bring up this graph again:

Correlation between organic food sales and autism

Why isn’t Nevison demanding studies to determine if organic food is an environmental cause of autism? Or let me use another of my favorite examples. Internet use took off, beginning in the early 1990s and correlating with the beginning of the “autism epidemic.” Why isn’t Nevison demanding studies on this? The answer is obvious. It’s because “environmental causes” of autism is code among antivaccine activists for “vaccines.” Whenever you hear “environment” coming from someone like Nevison, substitute the word “vaccines,” because to antivaccine activists, it’s the vaccines. It always was the vaccines. It always will be the vaccines. To them, there really is only one “environmental cause” of autism that matters: Vaccines. Never mind that scientists have been looking for evidence of a link between vaccines and autism and produced in the process copious evidence that there is none that they can be detected.

Nevison has an answer for that as well, riffing off her outrage that anyone would compare being antivaccine to being a climate change denier:

The media present climate change denial and concerns that vaccines can cause autism as comparable examples of scientific ignorance. However, evidence for climate change comes from thousands of studies across a wide range of scientific disciplines, from ecology to oceanography to paleogeology. This evidence is rooted in fundamental principles of physics and chemistry involving the absorption of energy by greenhouse gases, and is supported by thousands of ground-based, satellite-based and ice-core derived records from around the world that have documented trends in vital Earth properties such as temperature, rainfall, snow depth, polar ice extent, and atmospheric chemical composition. In contrast, the evidence refuting a vaccine-autism link is based more or less entirely on a limited number of studies from just one scientific discipline, epidemiology, which is rooted in statistical correlations that do not and cannot address underlying biological mechanisms. Further, some of those epidemiological studies originally showed significant associations between autism risk and thimerosal (Verstraeten, 2003) and receipt of the MMR before age 3 (DeStefano, 2004), but were manipulated to make those associations go away. CDC senior scientist Dr. Bill Thompson, who has now become a whistleblower, has publicly stated that he was involved in research fraud on a key MMR study. Thompson’s admission provides evidence that parental concerns about giving MMR too early may not be irrational after all, yet the mainstream media has barely reported on his allegations. They also have not reported that two scientists at Merck are suing the company for exaggerated claims over the efficacy of the mumps portion of the MMR vaccine, falsifying data sets, and destroying evidence.

Epidemiology cannot address underlying biological mechanisms? Tell that to Sir Richard Doll and all the other epidemiologists who figured out that smoking tobacco products causes lung cancer! Let’s just put it this way, to make it simple enough for even Nevison to understand, given that she is now trashing a discipline that she clearly does not understand. There has never been a randomized trial that shows that cigarette smoking causes cancer. There have only been epidemiological studies. There will only be epidemiological studies because they are the forms of studies that can be done ethically to address this question. Moreover, it is using the same epidemiological methodologies that have been used to identify smoking tobacco as a cause of lung cancer that epidemiologists have failed to find a correlation between vaccines and autism. One notes that that last bit about the MMR is nothing more than a rehash of Brian Hooker’s painfully incompetent “reanalysis” of a single epidemiological study that created the “CDC whistleblower” (a.k.a. the #CDCwhistleblower) manufactroversy.

As for Nevison’s point about “multiple disciplines” verifying climate change theory, in her eagerness to focus on a single discipline that she doesn’t respect (epidemiology), she forgets that there are many studies from many other disciplines, such as neuroscience, immunology, chemistry, biology, and the like that address the plausibility of a vaccine-autism link and fail to find plausibility. In any case, it’s rather blatant how Nevison likes to disparage the epidemiology that fails to find a link between vaccines and autism in contrast to “many disciplines” all converging on the same conclusion about global climate change when it suits her (i.e., to attack the negative studies) but latches on to a single study when it can be incompetently twisted to show a seemingly positive result. (Indeed, the reanalysis of that study was so bad that even a new journal ended up retracting it.) Seriously, if Destefano et al (the study to which Nevison refers) were ever found to be completely invalid, it would not change the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism any more than removing one study would invalidate the scientific consensus that human activity is a major contributor to global climate change.

Let’s just put it this way. Hooker himself has discussed how he reanalyzed the DeStefano et al dataset using a “very, very simple statistical technique” and brags that to him in statistics “simplicity is elegance.” He then follows up by saying that he’s “not really that smart” and therefore “likes easy things rather than much more intellectually challenging things.” So he did the “simplest, most straightforward analysis.”

Here’s a hint: In statistics, the simplest analysis is often not the correct analysis, and, boy, was this the case for Hooker’s reanalysis of the DeStefano et al dataset. Nevison, I’m sure, understands that using “simple” techniques isn’t always the best in climate science. That’s why those climate models she studies are complex. The same is true of epidemiology, but in her ignorance Nevison buys a “simple” analysis. None of this stops Nevison from ranting more about the comparison:

The conflation of vaccine safety concerns with climate change denial is a cynical and scientifically misleading tactic that seems hypocritical when one recalls that the media for many years helped perpetuate the idea that climate change science was highly uncertain, even “bogus.” The media’s biased portrayal of the issue in years past helped enable inaction on important steps, such as building a clean energy economy, that could have begun decades ago and spared our children and grandchildren some of the burden they now face in coping with future climate disruption.

Of course, the difference here is that the media started out enabling antivaccine viewpoints that Nevison likes. They did it for years. Only over the last five years or so are the media actually getting the vaccine/autism story much more correct than they did before. Now that that’s happening, Nevison doesn’t like it.

It’s ironic in the extreme that someone like Nevison, who belongs to a discipline whose legitimacy and science have been questioned by denialists using intellectually dishonest tactics would use exactly the same sorts of intellectually dishonest tactics used by antivaccinationists to attack epidemiology and vaccine science. Truly, the human mind compartmentalizes.

Or Nevison is just an obvious hypocrite. Take your pick. Either way, she’s a clueless denialist.